Taking a watch apart…

…is lots more fun than putting it back together.

Someone asked me today about a question her roommate asked her not long ago. If we live our whole lives without God but then repent at the last minute, won’t God forgive us and save us? If not, how can you say He is so loving? If so, how can you say He is so just?

To help respond to this question, I suggested some analogies. The right way to understand this issue is based on the principle that some things are irreversible, or at least, so nearly intractable once enacted that they basically preempt such an easy ‘lat minute’ solution. As St. Augustine remarked in one of his many discussions of the fall in Adam, there are some acts we perform by which we forfeit our ability, let alone right, to undo or repent of them. Such as suicide. As soon as you kill yourself, there is by definition no last second chance or last resort to reverse that action. Suicide coalesces your last second with your last resort; a second later, you’re past your last resort, past the point of no return.

Analogies for this principle are the following: An egg is easier to drop than to pick up. A car is easier to blow up than to put back together. A child is easier to create than to obliterate except, of course, for that wonder-working quick-and-dirty kludge of all kludges, abortion. (In a typically Luciferian fashion, whereby evil mocks the good with an inverse mimicry, abortion distorts the Gospel of the Crucified Savior by willfully sacrificing the unwilling innocent. There is indeed power in the blood of the innocent slain for the desperate.) And, as any twelve-year-old boy ought to know, a watch is easier to take apart than to put back together.

Or consider this scenario: A man marries a woman and quickly announces he intends to live his whole ‘married’ life apart from and in spite of his wife. He comes and goes whenever he likes, demands help when he needs it, offers help when he finds the time, all the while assuring himself and his family that he will make good on everything in the end. As death approaches, he returns home and asks his wife to take him in. Would she? How could she? What meaning would his ‘love’ have at such a late hour after being displayed as narcissism and self-isolation all the years before? Even his wife, by sheer grace, did embrace and restore him, could the man really have the capacity to live in the fullness of that relationship? Would he not have become to isolated and self-centered that even the restoration he finds in his wife would seem a theatrical, and therefore artificial, finale?

Theoretically, yes, God would and can forgive us and save at the last minute, despite a life lived without and against Him. The problem, therefore, is not God’s justice or benevolence, but rather, our shallowness and intransigence. Every moment of our lives we stand under a shower of grace, knee-deep in puddles of grace, God’s very immanence in Christ. Our only chance for enjoying that grace is to lower our umbrellas of self-enclosure and idol protection, get naked, and play in the rain. Otherwise, not even grace can touch us. Grace, after all, is not an abstract ‘thing’ but God’s own touch by the Holy Spirit. If we continually reject Him qua Grace, the problem is not that He will not ‘be there for us’ in our final hour, but rather that we will not be there to be touched and healed.

We can imagine a plastic drinking straw. A saint is like a clean, straight straw that is fully open to the coursing of grace through him or her. Sins become kinks in our character, in our faculties, which impede the flow of grace in us (and not only for our own sake but also impede the overflow of grace into our neighbors’ lives). Hell is simply a case of a straw that has become knotted in itself: not only can grace not flow through it, but also its continued flow only increases the internal pressure of the plastic––thus hell is suffering in the very presence of God made into an absence by our inability to let Him in. The reason God cannot untie our knots in hell, is because grace only works on the foundation of nature, not against it. As St. Thomas said so well, “Gratia non tollat [destruit] naturam, sed perficiat [Grace does not negate {destroy} nature, but perfects it)” (ST I, i, 8 ad 2). Indeed, not only does grace presuppose nature (De Ver. 27, 6 ad 3)––as the subject of grace––but grace also presupposes the intrinsic openness of nature to grace as its operative reforming agent and final cause. Nature is the preamble of grace (In Boeth. de Trin. 2, 3). Once that openness, however, by its own operative powers, becomes an intrinsic closure, there is literally no means, no access, by which God can infuse His grace into that nature. The moment of death is a mystical crucible, ignited in the first exposure to God qua Lumen de Lumine, which hardens our nature into a permanent cast, much like a “glow wall” leaves our shadow on it after a flash.

The point is that consciously living a life without and against God summons all our natural powers to shape those same natural powers into a mode that has really no capacity for turning back to God. All the grace He would shower upon us finds no foothold, or, worse (such as a grace of conviction which is quickly spurned for further hardening in sin), becomes just that much more fodder which we can use to resist God and stifle our own capacity for repentance. A man who says he will ‘test God’ by jumping off a building and then asking for salvation at the last instant is not even seeking the right God. For the God Who was in Christ is also Creator of the very laws and nature that dictate his jump will be irreversible and fatal. As below, so above. Making the jump of premeditated ‘final repentance’ is really just making a final jump. Grace is intrinsically a gift, but a gift is intrinsically something that can only be received by one with the capacity to accept it; unfortunately, sin is something that robs us of this ability, like a beggar who cuts his own hands off to win sympathy but can not even accept the alms given him. We may cut off our nose to spite God’s face, but, being made in His image, we only end up scouring off our own faces, ultimately rendering ourselves blind, deaf, and mute when grace passes us by in the end.


16 Responses

  1. Shades of Graham Greene and “Brighton Rock” here – a recurring theme is the protagonists realisation that he cannot repent at the last moment. Life doesn’t work that way.

    In any case, is the response to grace is key on this account? The language of “works doesn’t seem to fit in at all.

    G Veale

    PS Good to see you back.

  2. Good to see it’s good for me to be back. 😉

    The language of works? Please elaborate.

  3. Oh, nothing terribly profound or insightful. Its just an observation that when Catholics and evangelicals drop terms like “works” and “justification” we often seem to be saying the same thing. An individual can clearly be saved without “good deeds” (if there’s no time to perform them) , but at the same time grace changes (or rather reforms and perfects) human nature, so good deeds will inevitably follow given time.
    So it’s not the deeds that save us, in the sense of meriting a reconciliation. But unless God heals our nature there can be no reconciliation. And a changed nature results in “good deeds”.

    Some very interesting thoughts on Hell. I found those very helpful.
    One question, though. Our nature seems so damaged that we could not choose God *now*. We don”t seem to need to wait for Hell for that state of affairs. So what does it require to make choosing God’s Grace an option?


  4. “Our nature seems so damaged that we could not choose God *now*. We don”t seem to need to wait for Hell for that state of affairs. So what does it require to make choosing God’s Grace an option?”

    This sounds too Reformed for my tastes. Our nature is fallen, not utterly corrupt. Otherwise, again, there would be no proper nature on which God can operate graciously. Our nature is at least still capable of coöperating with grace. We “could” clearly choose God *now* since we who believe in Him do so.

    I think Fr. William Most’s idea about “non-resisting”, as opposed to embracing or resisting, is onto something helpful in these De Auxiliis issues. All we do to ‘merit’ continued fruit of grace, is not resist its initial influence. We do not thereby actually choose grace or, of ourselves, turn to God, since it is only grace Himself which motivates us to disfavor sin and to favor good. Nor, obviously, does an active resistance to grace merit any kind of mercy. To recall my analogy: we neither kink the straw as grace trickles in, nor do we of ourselves straighten it to open the way. We simply accept. A sort of enlightened passivity, which is the platform on which grace then generates progressively active cooperation in us. I visualize the Hound of Heaven finally catching us in an alley, and we, rather than trying to scramble away, and yet without latching onto Him, simply stand there, alert, scared, freely passive, as He sniffs us and then takes our hand in His mouth to lead us home.

  5. “This sounds too Reformed for my tastes.”

    “Reformed” maybe oversimplifies. Wesleyans and Arminians in general would agree that “Prevenient Grace” is necessary to return us to a state in which our nature can make a choice for God. So “Evangelical” would be more accurate.

    “Our nature is fallen, not utterly corrupt. Otherwise, again, there would be no proper nature on which God can operate”

    Agreed. As would Calvinists who have actually read the Puritans. (And there is a debate as to how Calvinistic Calvin was).

    “I think Fr. William Most’s idea about “non-resisting”, as opposed to embracing or resisting, is onto something helpful in these De Auxiliis issues. All we do to ‘merit’ continued fruit of grace, is not resist its initial influence… ”

    What follows is a very helpful account of Prevenient Grace. See why I missed this blog?

  6. Human nature becomes totally corrupt in Hell. Is there any evidence that people can enter this “Hellish” state on Earth? The Son of Perdition, Blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, The Abomination of Desolation all spring to mind here. Presumably we can become “Hellish” creatures here on Earth. This isn’t a state of affairs confined to post-mortem existence, is it?

  7. I think hellishness, as well as sanctity, is an asymptotic condition on earth. But it can become ‘stuck’, for some reason, in eternity.

    It is something deep in the theology of history which I continue to try to pursue, much less understand, that the eschaton somehow qualitatively alters the nature of historical, shall we say, responsibility. In the current mode of mortal existence, there is an infinite potential for God’s grace to reform us and our ‘hellishness’. But when we face judgment at death and, on a broader scale, the final judgment, history becomes irrevocable. The Church rejects universal salvation for a reason. I am convinced it is not simply dogmatism or scriptural fiat–– though those grounds would suffice–– but is somehow intelligibly wrapped up in human nature and freedom. Hell and heaven become, as it were, natural outcomes of supernatural dealings.

  8. Are you sure hellishness can’t get “stuck” in history? Judas, for example? Blasphemy against the Holy Ghost? (Whatever that is – is there a “Catholic” take on it?)

    On a related note, I have wondered if Blasphemy might not explicate the nature of sin and evil a little more pellucidly than concupiscence or privation or idolatry or pride. It seems to me that Blasphemy is as bad as it gets- of course a secular culture won’t get this- and that’s where we should begin when trying to understand evil. So the evil of genocide derives from the assault on God’s image. It seemed to me that your comments on abortion where heading in this direction. I found that helpful too.

  9. No, I’m not sure hellishness can’t stuck prior to death. But I am skeptical of that. A Thomistic instinct, I guess. Or maybe all too Origenist.

    I see the “stuckedness” of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as a summary definition of a life lived in sin and ended in final impenitence. Such impenitence is a WILLFUL refusal to accept the Holy Spirit qua Grace. If it were a completely natural incompetence (utterly stuck), we’d not be liable as much as we are for that sin. See CCC §1864.

  10. I wouldn’t necessarily pit a “concupiscential” explication, and much less a privation theory, of sin against your blasphemy approach. After all, blasphemy most likely originates in an otherwise good desire for something, and which goes on to violate the demands of right reason by detracting from the greater good of God’s glory. Blasphemy, then, could be concupiscential in manner, if not necessarily in intent. Further, what is blasphemy but a lack of proper reverence for God? Blasphemy is, then, formally, a privatio latriae.

    And to return to the “stuck” issue: the reason I am hesitant to see the same hardness in mortal sin as we find in the impenitence of the damned is twofold. First, hell partakes of aeviternity in a way history does not. Second, hell (qua a term of final judgment) would be superfluous if the finality of judgment were already dispensed in this life.

    As for blasphemy transferring to God through the mediation of harming his creatures, I think if you invert this, you’ll see the essence not only of the cult of the saints, but also the value of relics. Just as we can blaspheme God by damaging his image in his human creatures, so too can we reverence him by reverencing his servants. He alone is the Holy One. Hence even to speak of “the holy ones,” is, on strictly Reformed terms, blasphemous. Yet we all agree we are made HOLY in Christ. How can this be so? Because God himself imparts himself to us AS the Holy One BY the Holy Spirit. Ergo, to slight the HOLINESS of the saints as “merely human”, is to slight the holiness of God. There is no holiness but God’s. Relics are simply concrete artifacts in real spacetime of God’s sanctifying presence among us, among people just like us. To reject them, is to reject the concrete reality of God imparting his holiness in, not simply among, flesh and blood BY flesh and blood. All relics are but analogical works of holy art, carved in human flesh and blood, in honor of the One Flesh and One Blood carved into the tree.

    Now, I bring this up because I think it hints at why we can’t simply say some people are as stuck in sin in this historical life as they might be in hell. If we claimed a person was utterly devoid of grace, and utterly unsalvageable, we would be denying any presence of God in/for him. We would, thus, be limiting God’s own power qua Savior. It may be true that some are stuck in sin in historical spacetime; but I think it’s a pure abstraction, whose ‘truth maker’ will only be obtain as a member of a state of affairs including their final judgment in eternity. We cannot even really say the Devil is utterly devoid of grace, since the Devil does at least enjoy the grace of being and the knowledge of God. Prophetically by Scripture, we may know the Devil is doomed, but this does not mean the Devil’s nature is intrinsically incapable of redemption prior to the eschaton. The Devil and all the damned are damned precisely because they will against their own nature as vessels made to glorify God. This is something we can only do in history; but it is something that is somehow ratified and memorialized, as it were, in eternity.

  11. I’m not sure that Blasphemous acts need ever have originated from actions aimed at the good, or even happiness.Duns Scotus added the affection for justice to the iclination for happiness and perfection. The former can be captured in Johnathan Edwards phrase ‘I would be willing to be damned for the sake of the glory of God.’
    I think I would add another- an inclination towards chaos and irrationality. A tendency to seek damnation for it’s own sake. Which makes no sense, but that’s the point.
    I’m a High School teacher. Bullying is as it always was – commonplace. If I discover a bully at work, sometimes I can discern selfish motivations – pride, power, anger. (But never EVER a lack of self-esteem).
    Other times no such motivation exists. And what is disturbing to my mind is that the bully isn’t merely aiming to inflict physical pain. That isn’t enough. He has to reach beyond the physical and desecrate the other person’s spirit. (The other person’s holiness, as you put it).He needs to devalue and destroy what is most sacred. There are a thousand crude and cruel ways to humilate another youngster. Yet it’s not the suffering but the sheer irrationality of the whole act that is disturbing. (I’m just thankful God didn’t send me into Law Enforcement).
    Once you devalue anothers human nature you’ve devalued your own. Some of my kids literally could not give a damn. That is to say their own damnation would not bother them. What is important is that damnation happens to someone. It’s a frightening trajectory that produces frightening results (murder for kicks in one case, although I didn’t really know the pupil concerned. Suicide in two others. In fact suicide is becoming habitual).
    I don’t think all evil begins with blasphemous intentions. Reflecting on what you said, I think that I might have been going too far. But all evil at least raises the possibilty of Blasphemy.
    I have a passing interest in psychology, and find it helpful. But it is instructive that Theology can provide much clearer guidance when counselling students. I think teenagers (in Ireland at least) are facing a spiritual crisis. So it is helpful to discuss these issues with someone outside the Reformed tradition. The benefit is VERY practical. These are not just abstract concerns.

    Graham Veale

  12. Graham, my good fellow, saying “just abstract” to a philosopher in fieri like me is like saying “just food” to an apprentice chef! The just abstract stuff is, in my opinion, sometimes the most devotionally and psychologically helpful. I’m not pontificating, I’m just saying I’m GLAD someone gets some existential value from my musings and others’ here. I wouldn’t keep plowing the metaphysical fields if I didn’t derive spiritual benefit and, moreover, pastoral facility for enriching life unto God by the ‘love of wisdom’. There was a time when I struggled with ‘fear and loathing in abstraction’, since the arcane logomachy of many academic gremlins made me sick and dessicated my soul. Our youth––and I speak as middle/high school teacher in Taiwan, whose cultural affinity for and historical attachment to Japan has led to a growing cultural of suicide and relata––still deserve the hope of the old maxim, “Beata vita perfecta sapientia efficitur.”

    But you are right: damnation happens, to people. I guess my only intuition is to add that it happens AS DAMNATION only in the mode of eternity.

  13. Interesting – what is it about Japanese culture that is causing the malaise? Some of the “manga” that passes for art is a little disturbing (and, along with Moore and Miller, ruined American comic books).
    Is it popular culture, or something deeper.


    PS As a High School Teacher, you officially become one of the Elect. It’s in all the Reformed Catechisms if you look carefully enough.

  14. Yes, Graham, I know about the Election of High School Teachers. That’s why I employed my free will to become one. (Wait, no… arrrgghhh, theocogpsychosis!)

    The influence of Japan upon Taiwan just has to do with the interest in trivialities and the vapid consumerism that has, for a generation or two at least, set them apart from China. The rise in suicide doesn’t help either, based as it is on pagan obsession with making bank and excelling on standardized tests. I don’t want to lay this at Japan’s feet, and I think Taiwan has a naturally more supple social structure than Japan’s withering polis, so I will only say they are both suffering from similar diabolical attacks.

  15. I’ve an interest in media effects, and Japan is usually cited as an example of a culture that delights in violent entertainment and yet hasn’t suffered negative effects. I just wondered if Japanese entertainment might be having a negative effect on another culture.

    After the last suicide at my school my Principal surprised me by making a direct link to Torture Porn. It isn’t just that life is cheapened, and death trivialised. It’s that it is specifically *young* bodies that are torn apart on screen.


  16. Out of curiosity, what do you teach?

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